Last week I returned from six amazing days in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This particular visit was spent mostly indoors, however, because I was there to attend the annual Language of Spirit Conference, where we engaged in "dialogue exploring reality from Indigenous and Western science perspectives."
On my last day in town, I really wanted to venture out. Before coming to New Mexico, I had e-mailed a local CSA (community supported agriculture) that I located while web surfing, because I wanted to not only visit a CSA but see what could grow in New Mexico.
But I didn't hear back from them -- until my last night in town, because their public liaison, Sarah, was just back from her vacation to Seattle. Unfortunately, I had cancelled my rental car, just hours before, thinking I wouldn't need it after all.
When we talked the next morning and Sarah learned that I planned to take a taxi out to see the gardens, she immediately balked at that idea and said, "No, don't do that. A taxi will never find us [the garden]. I'll come pick you up. I'll be the one with a four year old in the backseat."
Her gesture exceeded my expectation. But after four days of being out of my normal routine and way of thinking, I was getting real used to going with the flow and delighting in where it led me.
Sarah and her traveling companion and daughter, Osa, made sure I got to the right place. Upon arriving at erda Gardens, my attention immediately went to the tall sunflowers near the entrance and to those farther out in the gardens themselves. I asked about them and was told they were planted there to provide needed shade for the shorter plants.
Over the next two hours, I learned more about the techniques of biodynamic agriculture. For one, seeds are planted according to moon cycles, which I find intriguing. For another, flowers are often planted in and around the vegetable garden to attract not only good insects, but also bees in particular, which come and generously spread pollen from plant to plant, as bees do.
Sylvia and Jimmy were working in the garden when I got there. I was told that Jimmy was the one who knew biodynamic agriculture the best, having farmed this way for over 20 years. I made a mental note to talk to Jimmy but, just then, was introduced to Kim, who suggested I help her cut basil -- as today was harvest day, and soon people would be arriving to pick up their weekly share.
"You didn't think we wouldn't put you to work, did you?"
"Oh, no! I said. "I was hoping you would. I came to help... and learn."
And learn I did. It was sort of embarrassing, but I didn't know the best way to cut basil, to insure it continues to grow more branches and leaves -- you cut right above a "T"-intersection where stem and two branches, directly across from each other, meet. (I usually pick just enough leaves off my plant for cooking.) Kim loaned me her knife, which came in handy, while she made it look easy -- breaking each stem in just the right place by hand.
I asked question upon question and, in the midst of all of them, discovered that Kim and I were reading exactly the same book, David Mas Masumoto's Five Senses in Four Seasons. How serendipitous! And it was the only book I brought along with me on this trip, which is some sort of record for me.
Kim sent me over to another patch of basil to begin harvesting there, while she went off to attend to something else.
"Look out for the ant hills!" Kim called back to me. I assumed she meant, "Don't disturb them." So I made a mental note.
I carried the cardboard box over and began cutting -- and reveled a bit in the fact that I was not only outside enjoying the sunshine and those huge New Mexican clouds but working in a beautiful garden ... in Albuquerque, no less.
Soon Kim rejoined me and began telling me a bit about bees. Their honeybees made organic honey. I asked how they could control whether the honey was organic or not, seeing how the bees travel off the farm as well to collect pollen.
"We don't use pesticides or hormones on them, as some beekeepers do ... and just do the best we can," she remarked.
She also mentioned the book, The ABC XYZ of Bee Culture by A. I. Root -- originally published in 1877 and now in its 40th edition -- which is still known as the bible on bees, for its wisdom in understanding bees and what they need to thrive.
Before I could ask any more questions, Kim instructed me to take the now full box of basil over to where others from the community were gathered under a large apple tree's wide canopy -- which was surrounded by tables loaded with boxes filled with freshly-picked fruits and vegetables.
The first thing we did was weigh the basil. Then we counted out 12 stems and tied them together with either a rubber band or twist tie. After that, each bouquet was given a quick dip in a bucket of water, which did wonders to revive them from the heat.
Beyond the apple tree were a couple of manmade beehives (see photos at right and below). This particular type of beehive is called a top-bar beehive. Kim said that bees really like the 45-degree angle of the box for some reason and explained that each bee finds the doorway into the box using magnetic attraction.
"If you stood in front of their path to the door, do you know what would happen?" Kim asked me.
"They would fly into me?"
"Yes, they'd bump right into you, because the magnetic pull would be sensed more strongly than you."
I also learned that moving a hive needed to be undertaken with much care: move the hive more than 6 inches to anywhere less than 6 miles would create a situation where it's difficult for the bees to find their hive again. Less than 6 inches, they would still be able to sense the doorway. Over 6 miles away, they would be able smell the hive and find it. (I'm still trying to wrap my brain around this, but I believe her. Bees are really pretty amazing creatures -- and somehow so mathematical -- who travel within a 6-mile radius to gather enough pollen to make honey back at the hive.
It was time to join the others as customers were starting to arrive. Here, everyone was responsible for counting or weighing their own produce.
I helped Sarah collect her half-share of this week's bounty into recycled paper bags. A half share included:
Swiss Chard -- 1 bunch
Carrots -- 2 each
Tomatoes -- 1.5 pounds
Apples -- 1 pound
Basil -- 1 bunch
Hot Peppers -- 1 large or 10 small
Spearmint -- 4 stems
Thyme/Oregano/Sage -- 2 stems total
Bell Peppers & Beets -- choose 1
Eggplant (small, slender ones) -- 1 each
Arugula -- small handful
Flowers were also for sale. I enjoyed watching Chris draw tomatoes and apples on the sign and meeting Charlie and Mo, a local couple who donated a parcel of their land for erda's use and were often pitching in with the gardening as well.
Charlie warned me that next year I would need to amend my garden's soil, because tomatoes draw out so many nutrients from the soil. In another year, I should plant them in another spot, for a year or two, then rotate. (I've also been told that planting a cover crop during the winter would be a good idea, to add nutrients back.)
When it was time to head back to the hotel, the sense of community and dedication that I experienced on the land stayed with me. Of course, with anything so collaborative, there are challenges.
Sarah commented that the collective working the garden -- most of whom are volunteers -- changes somewhat from season to season, as new people come on and, oftentimes, longer-term workers leave, due to life changes or burn out. (In addition, erda suffered a great loss when their founder was killed in a car accident in 2001.) Then this year, they had to move the garden from one side of town to another, and some customers have not followed.
She said, "Sometimes it's a miracle that we make ends meet." But they always have.
I keep thinking of the bees and their dogged determination to cater to the queen bee ... day in and day out. Nothing short of amazing.
What creates such perseverance?